I know we’ve talked about the topic of IT burnout before. Sonia Cuff wrote a great post here last year providing links to lots of resources and stories on the topic. But I still feel like we need to keep breathing air into this discussion.

I just finished watching the Theranos documentary on HBO, and was horrified that one of the scientists committed suicide due in part to what sounded like IT burnout. Two people I know have had heart attacks in the last six months. I’ve had my own struggles with this, and wanted to share information I’ve learned from my medical team.

You know I’m going to start with definitions.

Everyone Has Stress, and that’s OK

How can you tell if you are burnt out or if you’re facing a stressful situation? After all, stress is a normal human reaction to anxiety and fear. There is even a scale that rates the life events that produce stress. It’s called the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, When you examine these life events  you’ll see that some of them are positive, for example marriage, retirement, pregnancy, marital reconciliation, gaining a new family member, buying a house and even going on vacation. There are other life events that will obviously produce stress, such as a family member dying, imprisonment, losing your job, and even trouble with your boss.

The creators of this stress scale were looking to see if there is a correlation with life events that cause stress and illness. Stress in the short term ignites your fight or flight response. According to Harvard Medical School, your “heard pounds and breathing quicken[s]. Muscles tense and beads of stress appear”. This is your body protecting you from some big change, and it actually activates a hormonal chain of events to help you face the perceived threat.

Long-term stress is what is dangerous

When it’s a one-time event, your body does what it’s supposed to do with stress, and it becomes a matter of managing the stress to get through that particular life stressor. But when you are under continual, long-term stress, your physical and mental health are put at risk. According to the same Harvard Medical School article:

Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

Long-term stress causes physical and mental problems. I am obviously not a doctor, so if any of this rings true with you go talk with your personal physician or mental health practitioner. What I’m sharing is research my personal health team shared with me to help me process my personal situation.

When it comes to stress, I’m starting out with a bit of a handicap, since I have a child on the autism spectrum. Research has shown moms with autistic kids have about the same amount of long term stress as combat soldiers. For me personally, understanding the symptoms of IT Burnout are critical because my body already deals with the negative physical impacts of long-term stress.Imagine the stress of people on the spectrum, or other folks with disabilities, or many other life factors that cause long term stress. Add that to life events on the Holmes and Rae stress scale, and many of us start out in the danger zone. We really owe it to each other to get a handle on how our choice in careers – working in tech – can produce this long-term stress.

IT Burnout is the result of long-term stress

This is a definition of job burnout provided in World Psychiatry (the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association, emphasis mine):

Burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Why do environments produce IT burnout?

I could not find any clinical research on job burnout that was specific to IT in the quick research I did on this topic, but we should be able to extrapolate from the research in other fields. The World Psychiatry article referenced above gave 6 key domains that impact burnout:

  • Workload: I think this is something we’ve all encountered. Too much work, not enough people. We tell ourselves: it has to get done, if I don’t do it, it is not going to get done. I can do it while I watch TV. I can get up early and finish before anyone gets online. The trouble is, this is reinforced with praise, sometimes a call out at the quarterly meeting. But do you get time off? Do more people get hired?
    It’s so tempting to think “this is just for one more quarter, if I can just get us to this milestone, things will ease up”. We are not machines, we need time to sleep and to live our life. The US labor movement was built on the idea “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and 8 hours for what you will”. Tech orgs in our century have all but abolished that idea, and we the people are paying the price in burnout.
  • Control: The less autonomy you have at work is clearly linked to burnout. As information workers, the means of production in most cases is inside our heads, whether we are writing code,  troubleshooting a complex digital system, or planning a new product to bring to the market. If you’re in a tightly controlled environment where you can’t contribute freely, it will lead to burnout.
  • Reward: This can be financial, institutional, or social. Are you getting paid what you’re worth? Do you get recognition for the value you bring, or are you constantly off to fight the next fire? If you’re doing the job of two or three people, are you ever recognized for the sacrifices you’re making to cover the workload? These are the things that intrinsically motivate us to show up for work and help build a better product/environment (the means of production is inside our heads after all). Without this, we lose motivation and eventually just can’t get anything done.
  • Community: Have you ever worked on a team that had conflict, but the leaders would tell you they didn’t want to hear it, and to work it out? That leads to unresolved conflict, and when you figure out you have no support you lose trust. If other bad things happen, you put your head down and suffer. And put yourself on the road to burnout.
  • Fairness: If you are slighted and treated unfairly, you’re naturally going to be angry at work. That is human. If this treatment is systemic and ongoing, you’ll become cynical and hostile. If there is no community to resolve your angst, it’s not likely you’ll be able to avoid burnout.
  • Values: The article describes values like this: “…a gap between individual and organizational values, employees will find themselves making a trade‐off between work they want to do and work they have to do, and this can lead to greater burnout.”

Tech organizations would do well to look into these areas when your employees start succumbing to burnout. You have the power to improve these areas, losing key players is often more expensive than any improvement costs needed.

Watch for these IT Burnout symptoms

The Mayo Clinic gives this list of burnout symptoms.

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

I know I’ve been on teams when I could answer in the affirmative to every single item on this list. Do you identify with any of these? If so, it’s time for a chat with your medical team. The same Mayo Clinic article warns that the end result to burnout can be all the medical conditions related to long-term stress.

EVERYONE needs support

If any of these things ring true to you, don’t feel bad about taking a step back and taking care of yourself. Go to your doctor, get a physical! This is how you’ll know if ongoing work stress is starting to impact your health.

If you have a counselor go to see them. Don’t have a counselor? Find out if your employer has an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), and USE IT! I did this in a particularly volatile organization and got connected with a job coach who help me see what was happening had nothing to do with me personally.

There is no shame in using professional coaches and counselors. I promise you all of our leaders have coaches. Coaches can help expose bad behaviors in an environment that you may be too entrenched with to see, and help you prevent burnout. If you’re still nervous about this, Take This.org has a ton of resources that you can use.

Do it for your family and friends. We need you here. Keep work in the box it belongs in, don’t let it consume you to the point of burnout.